Why Sustainability Tops the Agenda for Business Schools

Under pressure on all fronts to move beyond ‘profits at all costs’, business schools are making sustainability part of the core MBA curriculum

When Daniel Aycock finishes his MBA this year, he will join a consulting firm that advises corporations on meeting their renewable energy goals. The job at CustomerFirst Renewables is a departure from his previous career at PwC, advising the consultancy’s clients on their deals. 

Fortunately for sustainability-minded MBA candidates, these kinds of roles are becoming more and more common. Leading employers want MBA graduates who take sustainability seriously as core to business, and not a sideshow, says Robert Strand, executive director of the Center for Responsible Business at Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley. 

“This has not always been the case, as some employers in the past thought of sustainability as a nice-to-have,” he says. 

Aycock chose the University of Virginia, Darden School of Business with the post-MBA goal of making a positive impact on the environment. There, Aycock took classes and attended conferences on sustainability, and joined the energy and net impact student clubs. 

“In addition to gaining a management education, I’ve built a network of like-minded future leaders and learned about issues that are important for a career in renewable energy,” he says, citing classes in ethics. 

[See the Top 10 MBA Programs for Sustainability / CSR / Social Entrepreneurship]

Responsible and ethical leadership is the most critical issue for 600 prospective MBA students globally surveyed by consultancy CarringtonCrisp with help from accreditation body EFMD. 

Nearly three-quarters said responsible management and ethical leadership was important to business education. The second most important factor was diversity and equality, cited by 67 percent of respondents. Roughly the same proportion also named poverty and climate change as crucial content in an MBA. 

“Future students tend to see responsible leadership as a fundamental aspect that runs through business teaching and research, not as a specialist add-on or elective. It is something that business schools need to focus on,” says Andrew Crisp, author of the study. 

Darden’s move to make ethics a part of its core curriculum was driven by demand from a generation of students attuned to the climate crisis. 

Mike Lenox, senior associate dean and chief strategy officer, says that it would be derelict for any business school not to have a strong focus on sustainability today. 

“We must ensure that graduates can lead with an understanding of the importance of sustainable business practices,” he says. “The most pressing global issues will require business to be an active and engaged stakeholder.” 

His business school’s case method, where students assess a corporate challenge in a group, brings ethical and stakeholder considerations into every course. 

“Students are trained to consider the full impact of their future actions as business leaders — on employees, the community, shareholders and the environment,” says the professor. 

More MBA programs teaching sustainability

An increasing number of schools are teaching sustainability in their MBA programs. The UK’s Exeter Business School’s MBA program, for example, weaves sustainability topics throughout the curriculum. Similarly, France’s Audencia Nantes School of Management’s MBA now includes more corporate social responsibility topics. Today, the MBA offers a concentration in CSR. 

New York University’s Stern School of Business runs an MBA specialization on sustainable business and innovation. It covers subjects such as impact investing, social enterprise, energy and the environment. 

The school also developed student consulting projects, which can be focused on making a positive impact on society or the planet. However, there is little consensus among business schools on how to define social impact, or how to measure it. 

NYU Stern's Center for Sustainable Business, in partnership with business, is developing a methodology to monetize the returns on sustainability strategies. Such methods have not yet been applied to business education, though. So it can be hard for schools to evaluate their teaching to find the best methods. 

But they cannot address the world’s pressing challenges alone. Interdisciplinary teaching is paramount. 

NYU Stern launched the Center for Business and Human Rights in 2013. It offers classes and conducts research into business and human rights challenges, like the role of internet platforms in addressing political disinformation online. 

The center is also developing a toolkit to help several business schools incorporate human rights into their teaching. “We see our role as helping to equip students with tools and an understanding of challenges, so as to enable them move the needle when they are in leadership positions,” says professor Michael Posner, director of the Center for Business and Human Rights.

Pressure for change has come from business itself. Lenox, at Darden, highlights the recent pronouncement from the Business Roundtable, a collection of the world’s most powerful CEOs, on the purpose of the corporation. 

He also cites the January letter from BlackRock’s Larry Fink, in which the head of the world’s largest asset manager said environmental sustainability will be critical to future investment decisions.

“There’s an increasingly popular contention that the purpose of business goes beyond simply profits at all costs,” Lenox says. 

For Tensie Whelan, director of NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business, this is “the next wave of management excellence”. 

“Climate change and inequity are causing business to see sustainability as an embedded strategic imperative,” she says. “Business schools must prepare students to address the changed dynamic.” 

Post-MBA careers in sustainability

Companies have come under pressure on all fronts to be more sustainable. Strand at Berkeley says that in recent years, between 10 percent and 20 percent of recent MBA graduates at Haas have taken a role that has a social impact, often in non-profits.

Some students also take jobs within larger organizations that focus on sustainability, CSR, or impact investing, known as “ethical capitalism”. In big corporations, the opportunity to make an impact through the supply chain is large. However, many companies have been accused of greenwashing recently — making a misleading claim about their commitment to sustainability, sometimes to cover up dubious practice. 

Strand says that MBA students look deep into a companies’ ethos and strategy to ensure they are “walking the talk”. “If a company has a recycling initiative, that wouldn't qualify as a social initiative in the minds of our students,” he says. 

Darden student Aycock does not think that MBA students need to work for non-profits to make an impact. “There will be opportunities for MBA graduates to drive impact across the economy.” 

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